In August 2011, an earnest animal advocacy group took over the animal shelter in East Baton Rouge Parish with the aim of transforming a place built to dispose of problem animals into one that found them permanent homes.

Eight years later, Companion Animal Alliance is overseeing a much different place. Relocated onto the LSU campus into a modern $12 million facility, CAA has steadily increased the number of animals saved from euthanization. They do it via savvy use of social media, expanded local adoption and foster networks, stronger ties to rescue groups, as well as upgraded community outreach and fundraising.

It’s been a tumultuous ride, though.

Multiple CAA directors have come and gone. The organization recently underwent an especially ugly leadership change. Along the way, the organization has repeatedly postponed its original goal of operating a “no kill” shelter, opting instead for a shelter that is more humane but still ends up euthanizing a fifth of the animals that come through its doors.

Hilton Cole, the longtime director of parish animal control, for years oversaw the former shelter on Progress Road near the Metro Airport before handing over operations to CAA. In those days, the shelter ended up euthanizing roughly eight out of the 10 animals in its care. Cole said that had to do with the historic mission of his office.

”People come first for animal control and rescue, and animals come second,” Cole said.

The no-kill movement put the Coles of the world on the defensive. Animal rights groups called for a seismic shift. Instead of simply controlling animals, animal shelters would take responsibility for their futures. They would strive to kill as few as possible — technically, a shelter is generally considered “no kill” if more than 90% of the animals that are taken in are released alive.

Cole, however, said it’s incredibly hard to reach that threshold, which CAA would quickly learn.

“That was the dream. Then reality struck, so they backed off of that,” Cole said. “We were accused of many things. Some of it was bona fide. Some of it was shrill and unreasonable.”

CAA didn’t back off immediately. Even while still in the old shelter, sharing space with Cole’s staff, CAA managed to significantly reduce euthanasia rates. A few more years along the same path and perhaps CAA could finally claim no-kill status — especially if the organization had a better workplace.

But as CAA leaders drew up construction plans for a new shelter facility in 2015, they quietly dropped the “no kill” rhetoric.

“We were told we needed significantly more resources than we had to get there,” recalled Christel Slaughter, chairwoman of the Companion Animal Alliance board.

The new shelter finally opened in November 2018 and has proved an immediate draw, bringing in more volunteers, foot traffic and visibility.

“That’s an advantage of being on the LSU campus,” Cole said. “There is a vast wealth of resources and energy.”

When the idea was first raised a decade ago, Cole said he was doubtful any group in Baton Rouge was up to the challenge. He’s since changed his mind. Having a nonprofit at the helm has meant access to private fundraising and grants he had little chance of landing as a government agency.

“I could never have done as well as they have,” Cole said. “It wouldn’t have been close, and it would not have been funded as well.”

In some ways, the new shelter has been a victim of its own success.

More people are bringing in their animals, said Jillian Sergio, CAA’s executive director, many of them averse to bringing their animals to the old shelter.

“It was old, dark, wet, had no air conditioning, no heat," Sergio said. "And here people are comfortable. This is a beautiful facility, it’s new, so our intake been higher, so it’s been a challenge for us.”

To keep up with added supply, the shelter recently added 40 more dog kennels.

On the whole, though, Cole said CAA’s move out on its own has been for the better.

”They could spread their wings,” he said.

The change has benefited Cole’s office as well.

“We have been able to specialize in protecting people and getting the city cleaned up,” Cole said. “That’s pretty much what we’ve accomplished.”

He credited a mix of improved technology and training as well as a less punitive approach to enforcement. Since 2012, Cole’s office has impounded 37% fewer animals.

“I have allowed my officers to use broader discretion,” he said.

Increased spaying and neutering of cats has also helped.

In 2014, the city-parish government increased pet registration fees. Using that added money, 1,000 feral cats are captured each year, brought to CAA to be spayed and neutered, and then returned to the wild.

In the five years since that program started, cats are impounded at half the rate they used to be. Likewise, the shelter euthanizes a quarter of the cats it used to.

120819 Dogs Cats Impounded vs Adopted

Cole said hiring Sergio was one of CAA’s best moves: “She’s by far the best they’ve ever had.”

Sergio, who started in April, had worked for CAA as its outreach manager before leaving in 2018 to run a shelter in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

Sergio said she’s happy both to be back and to be in a new space.

“Nobody will ever build a perfect shelter, but yes, there are things I would change and things if we had known. … I think everything is challenging,” Sergio said. “But we are leaps and bounds from where were at the old shelter.”

She noted a Nov 20 visit by Glasgow Middle School’s “pet appreciation club” to read books to the cats and dogs.

“Nobody would have sat on the floor at the old shelter,” she said. “There wasn’t space and it wasn’t the environment you wanted.”

During her 11 months away, CAA had become a tense workplace where “you could cut the tension with a knife.” She ended up making personnel changes.

“If we’re not a team and we’re not working together, we’re not doing anything for the animals,” she said.

Sergio’s predecessor as permanent executive director, Desiree Bender, lasted only five months. She was fired in October 2018, less than a month before the shelter opened. CAA filed a criminal complaint the next day claiming Bender stole several items, including cash and computer equipment, on her way out the door. Bender denied the claim, and Baton Rouge police later decided not to pursue charges.

Bender became a whistleblower for the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, accusing her former employer of unethical and illegal behavior for its practice of selling to LSU animals that were already dead or living but slated for euthanization.

She would go on to create a Facebook page, since taken down, called "Companion Animal Alliance: Shocking Truth Exposed" in which she alleged animal abuse by staff at the facility and complicity by its board.

Head veterinarian Sarah Hicks and Director of Operations Amanda Pumilia, who were named repeatedly on that Facebook page, soon after filed a still-pending defamation suit against Bender, a suit whose costs CAA underwrote.

After hiring Baton Rouge criminal defense attorney Jill Craft to defend her, Bender in turn filed her own lawsuit. In that suit, Bender argued that CAA forced her out after she raised the alarm about selling animals to LSU and has since tried to destroy her reputation in her field, preventing her from landing another job.

“It was all part of a crazy, knee-jerk strategy to silence my client and all who follow her,” Craft said.

Slaughter acknowledged that Bender came well recommended but said she lacked some key experience, namely running a shelter, particularly a large shelter like Baton Rouge’s.

After placing an ad for the top position, Slaughter said, she was surprised when Sergio expressed interest: “She seemed to have a perfect little set up.”

Despite living in a beautiful affluent Rocky Mountain town where the problem was not the oversupply but the lack of adoptable animals, Sergio said she found herself drawn back to Louisiana.

“There was no one way I would have turned this down, because this is where I started as an animal worker, it’s where I live,” she said. “It just gets inside of you.”

Slaughter said she likes Sergio’s “participative leadership style”: “She’s not going to just challenge our veterinarian. She’s going to ask for a strategy.”

Sergio sketched out a variety of ways she is seeking to improve the organization, more services for livestock and other wildlife, improving communications, voluntarism and more community outreach. But she’s not ready to resume chasing the “no kill” label, at least not yet. She prefers the term “socially conscious sheltering.”

“But our goal is to always lower the euthanasia rate, always making our save rate higher,” she said.

Editors note: This story was updated Dec. 11 to clarify that Desiree Bender was the last “permanent” executive director of Companion Animal Alliance before the hiring of Jillian Sergio in that position. Between their respective tenures, Sarah Hicks and Amanda Pumilia served jointly as “interim” executive directors of the organization.

Email Charles Lussier at clussier@theadvocate.com and follow him on Twitter, @Charles_Lussier.